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Sound on the Goose Question-Origin Found
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In the old discussion forum, I requested help on finding the origin of the Bleeding Kansas/pre-Civil War idiom “Sound on the Goose.” In the Missouri-Kansas border region, being sound on the goose meant that one was in favor of extending slavery into the Kansas Territory. At that time, the earliest contemporary reference to the “Goose Question” was from December 1854 about a November meeting. (There was a reference published in 1856 where the author heard the phrase in mid-October.)

This fall, Nicole Etcheson from Ball State University and I have published an article (Emmett Redd and Nicole Etcheson, ‘”Sound on the Goose”: A Search for the Answer to an Age Old “Question”‘ Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 32 (Autumn 2009): 204-17). I do not believe it will be online but you might be able to get it from inter-library loan.

While an 1852 political cartoon renders the negative of the phrase and links it via a pun, the unequivocal link is in a November 16, 1853 issue of the Washington Evening Star newspaper. In the following couple of months it was reprinted at least 4 times as far west as Wisconsin. Other reprinting may yet be discovered.

I will reprint the article here, but it has many occurrences of the n-word. Prince John is John Van Buren, son of the President Martin Van Buren. Beverly Tucker was the publisher of the Washington Sentinel newspaper.

A Scene at the National!–Madame Rumor tells funny stories sometimes. She give the following account of an interview between Prince John Van Buren, on his recent visit to this city, and Colonel Beverly Tucker, the Sentinel of the Hards. The scene was at the National Hotel, where the Prince stopped, and where the gallant Colonel met him, and thus accosted him.

T.–Why, John, how are you? What the devil brought you here? Have the Hards driven you out of Gotham, or has Guthrie called you down here to give an account of yourself? How’s the election?

P.J.–God bless you, Bev, how do you do? As for the election, I know nothing about it; Guthrie is all right; I go in for the resolutions of ’98; hold that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” and my business here is to buy a nigger!

T.–Buy a nigger! Good gracious, Prince, how you surprise me!

P.J.–Yes, buy a nigger! I consider a nigger the great panacea, the ornament of the christian, the emblem of the faith and fidelity in the politician, and, altogether, something very important to mankind generally. Just see how Bronson has been puffed into a star of the first magnitude by galvanizing a short lecture to Guthrie upon niggers–they have nearly made a great man out of Dickinson–more than half humanized Charley O’Connor, and even raised poor Cooley to the precincts of notoriety. Since miracles have ceased, no such wonders have been performed before, and all by niggers. Nothing in Edmonds about spirit rappings begin to come up to it. I tell you, Bev, I must have a nigger–my fame requires it, and my personal wants demand it.

T.–Nonsense, John; but do you really want a nigger?–because, if you do, you must have one.

P.J.– Why, certainly I do. Everybody seems to doubt everything I say about niggers. I tell you, Bev, I have changed my mind upon that subject, and though I did not think so once, I now regard “the Wilmot” with the same abhorrence I do the Maine law. It’s sumptuary, merely–a check upon pleasure–upon personal comfort–upon all the arts and all the sciences–upon greatness–upon chivalry–and, finally, a check upon niggers, and, therefore, wrong. Any man that can’t see this, hasn’t got a nigger in his eye, and any man that hasn’t got a nigger in his eye in these days, is no man at all.

T.–Why, John, you talk like a Saint! Give us your views in the Sentinel, and then you will be considered orthodox. They are as sound as a nut. I thought you would come right at last.

P.J.–Sound! Why I am as sound on niggers as the stump candidate for selectman was on the goose question. The only trouble is to make the world believe it. I want to “crush out” unbelief and the Sentinel isn’t strong enough for that. I must have a nigger–a real Hard nigger–an ordained Adamantine–such an one as Dickinson would delight to chase, and as would make a fit companion for Cooley. I tell you, Bev, than I must get ahead of the whole batch, and

“Niggers! niggers! niggers are the cards

Wherewith to catch the conscience of the Hards!”

I suppose we agree on the Maine law.

T.–Ah! John, therein we do harmonize perfectly, and * * * *

The colloquists then retired into a corner. It is shrewdly suspected to converse about the printing of Congress.

Being “sound on something” often has reference to the person speaking. Another recently-discovered, printed occurrence related to the slavery issue was found in the October 14, 1853, Cleveland Leader. It claimed Ohio was ‘sound on the “goose question”‘ for electing a person opposed to slavery. Another example of this might be the disagreement on exact meaning claiming that someone was ‘sound on baptism’ depending whether a Catholic or Baptist said it. Also, think of the differences in meaning of, someone was “sound on health care”, if the speaker were Republican or Democrat.

Here is a link to a local NPR affiliate interview on this topic. It emphasizes the political ambiguity of the phrase.


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EmmettRedd said:

… (Emmett Redd and Nicole Etcheson, ‘”Sound on the Goose”: A Search for the Answer to an Age Old “Question”‘ Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 32 (Autumn 2009): 204-17). I do not believe it will be online but you might be able to get it from inter-library loan….


Here is the link to the article.


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I have long wondered about the origin of the phrase “sound on the goose” to describe pre-civil war support for slavery. This forum quotes a letter from 1853, the earliest known use of the phase, that links being sound on the question of slavery (i.e., supporting the spread of slavery to the Kansas territory) to being sound “on the goose question.”

Today, listening to the Fresh Air podcast of Maureen Corregan’s review of “Master Jefferson” by Henry Wiencek. I heard the following:

By 1810, Jefferson had his eye fixed firmly on the bottom line, disparaging a relative’s plan to sell his slaves by saying, “It [would] never do to destroy the goose.”  

I wonder if the phrase can trace its origin to Thomas Jefferson’s words in support of institution of slavery.   I like to find the sources of phrases, but in this case it’s depressing to see these words come from the pen that wrote “all men are created equal.”



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